The ruling classes throughout human history have dominated their populations by multiple means. They have monopolized and controlled political power, armies & security forces, economic relations, sex/gender roles, religious institutions, racial privilege, and ecological conditions & resources. As modern technology enables global travel and communications on an unprecedented scale, these originally local and provincial means of domination ignore and transgress pre-modern barriers of distance and culture. Planet Earth is less and less divided into isolated nations, cultures, and societies and the possibility of a unified global society is seemingly inevitable.
Of course, this unification is being led by a modernized ruling class with new and improved systems of domination, repression, exploitation, and oppression that are more powerful than ever thanks to modern technologies. The contemporary ruling class is the descendant of millenia of previous power-systems. By the same token, the potential for revolutionary emancipation has also always been present within this very same history of domination.
The ruling classes have been always composed of men with power, wealth, and means of force. They mandate sexual repressions and religious domination. The revolutionary counter-hegemonic forces nevertheless flower among women, the poor, the disenfranchised, racial minorities, and heretics. This pattern of ruling class and counter-class is universal and a persistent source of cultural creativity and emancipation throughout history.
This revolutionary view of history is in direct contrast to two prominent approaches to the question of culture and society. First of all the pro-Western narrative shared by most liberal, conservative, Marxist, and even many anarchist thinkers that Western modernity is a uniquely endowed society with critical resources of science, democracy, capital, atheism, or rebels that, for the first time in history, constitute a global potential for emancipation. In this approach non-Western societies are expected to adopt some of the specific aspects of Western modernity in order to become emancipated.
In its most egregious form, this viewpoint justifies the African slave-trade as it introduced Christianity to heathens. In a more subtle form, it calls for worldwide industrialization in order to speed the day when the proletariat can overthrow global capitalism. A more liberal variant sees the “end of history” in our present system of representative democracy and free markets and the rest of the world will simply have to catch up with us.
The primary limitation of this pro-Western approach is that its biases against religion or non-Western peoples fails to examine the counter-hegemonic resources of the submerged voices within religion and non-Western cultures. For example, while Christianity has doubtless been one of the most advanced hegemonic institutions in history, the gospel narrative itself has repeatedly spawned creative variations, usually persecuted as heresies. Similar dynamics have recurred throughout the history of existing religious traditions.
The second opposing approach may be called “culturalism” as it identifies some aspects of existing non-Western cultural identity that has to be defended against the onslaught of Western hegemony. Whether it be expressed as Black Nationalism, paleo-conservatism, multi-culturalism, traditionalism, or identity politics, this approach abstracts some seemingly benign aspects of a social group that is under pressure from modernization as worthy of defense and preservation. Often borrowing from anthropological cultural relativism, the culturalist approach often whitewashes issues of economic or gender privilege.
In one troubling form, such culturalism refuses to pass judgment on regimes such as Iran’s Islamic state, in the name of anti-Western multi-culturalism. While understandable at some level, to take the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is dangerous and betrays the emancipatory hopes of the oppressed suffering under authoritarian regimes. My critique of Iran’s government is not that it is Islamic, since by my logic, an emancipatory Islam has existed historically and still operates as an important source of social emancipation within Islamic societies. The flaw of culturalism is that it tends to see cultures as closed systems, rather than as complex realities with dynamic forces at work within them.
In contrast to either a pro-Western or a cultural relativist perspective, a revolutionary viewpoint sees emancipatory potential as the necessary product of relations of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. As Michel Foucault once stated, “where there is power, there is resistance.” Even more than resistance, the experience of domination fosters the potential for a truly emancipatory irruption of the existing power-structures.
In our world today, European and American powers rule the planet by means of capitalism, representative democracy, technological supremacy, racial privilege, military might, and male domination. From within each of these death-systems a radical opposition is persistently in formation, attempting to achieve a creative opening for emancipation. The hope of humanity is that these distinct counter-forces can transcend their isolation to join in common struggles across the barriers erected by the ruling classes down through the millenia.